"Edupunk" rocks the (virtual) house

By Laurie Rowell / July 2008

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Do you blog? Make wikis? Twitter? Do you build mash-ups for your classes? Do you ever wake up thinking about an innovative twist on PowerPoint that will rock students so hard they'll pipe up and join the conversation? Could be you're an edupunk.

"Edupunk" is an educational approach that combines creative drive with a maverick attitude, celebrating a kind of cocky, do-it-yourself confidence in which the educator—or possibly the student—designs the tools for teaching and learning. It speaks directly to the corporatization of education—and doesn't say nice things about it. Coined May 25, 2008 in Jim Groom's blog entry, "The Glass Bees," the term zinged across the educational blogosphere and beyond, setting online discourse a-buzz with passionate posts and talkbacks.

Groom was frustrated with what he saw as a growing corporate hubris in educational technology. He saw the designers of Blackboard 8, for example, "taking the experiments and innovations of thousands of people and re-packaging them as their own unique contribution to the educational world of Web 2.0."

In introducing the term "edupunk," Groom offered a name to an educational approach that not only embraces online technologies and communities, but any sensible tool at hand. The movement is one in which educators foster the involvement of students in their own education. This all speaks to an attitude that resounds with the technocenti, but Groom and others are clear this isn't just about technology.

So what is this about?

A key voice in the edupunk conversation has been Stephen Downes, senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada and a member of eLearn Magazine's editorial board, whose blog posts on the topic have amplified the edupunk buzz. Downes says he sees three facets to edupunk. "On the one hand, it's a reaction against the commercialization of learning—in particular, onerous copyright, things like lawsuits over patents by big corporations," he explains. "On the other hand, it has come to symbolize the do-it-yourself aspect of educational technology, the idea that people can do the same things that these expensive enterprise systems do with simple tools and simple methods, and not only can they do them, but they can frequently do them better."

The third ingredient in edupunk, according to Downes, is "thinking for yourself instead of being told what to think and learning for yourself instead of being told what to learn." This renegade insistence on independence is what really puts the "punk" in edupunk. "You can see the parallels, right, with the original '70s bands where they got together, they didn't have formal training," Downes points out. It's that energy—a determination to communicate via any medium from electrons to chalk—that constitutes the quirky spirit of this approach.

Kevin Lim, a doctoral candidate in communications at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is a self-described edupunker. His blog, too, hums with edupunk discussion, topped by a cartoon he put together to explain key players in the movement and what each has been saying. In the communications classes that Lim teaches, students experience his edupunking firsthand.

In a recent "Intro to Internet" course, for example, Lim had his students blogging, asking questions, and answering one another online. "All 75 students ran their own course blogs while my blog would be used to highlight excellent or unique posts every week," he explains. "To spur good work, I gave immediate feedback and recognition by issuing awards in the form of Web badges, which they could then attach to their posts." Because the blogs were public, the students had instant international exposure from Google or Yahoo searches on their topics and feedback from a reading public. Fully convinced that the best way to learn is to teach, Lim embraces the do-it-yourself aspect of edupunk and encourages his students to do the same.

So how is edupunk going to affect education? According to Downes, "the same way Web 2.0 affected education and the same way Web 1.0 affected education. These things are cumulative. None of them is going to create, singlehandedly, a revolution," he says, "but as a whole they depict an emerging reality."

So does edupunk constitute a kind of Web-two-point-something social movement? Downes certainly doesn't think so. He prefers to think of edupunk as "a loose collection of individuals identified by an affinity but not by formal constraints or regulations." As he sees it, "the very creation of a group called edupunk would be contradictory to the concept being expressed by edupunk."

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